Brooklyn pastor A. R. Bernard will be one of ten religious leaders to stand this coming Friday alongside Pope Francis at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan. The Brooklyn leader sees a shift by the Pope towards a more inclusive gathering for his “A Witness to Peace: a multi-religious gathering with Pope Francis.”
“I’m hoping a message is sent that we can engage in our own unique faith, and expressions of that faith, without losing our convictions,” says Bernard.
Bishop James Massa, who is coordinating the event, says that attendees will be from eight religious traditions: Jewish; Christian; Muslim; Hindu; Buddhist; Sikh; Jain; and Native American. Massa told the Catholic newspaper The Tablet that the 600 or so leaders will represent “the religious demography of New York City.” On Monday he will make public who has committed to come.
In 2008, Bernard was one of 250 Christian leaders who were invited to St. Joseph’s Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to hear Pope Benedict talk about the importance of ecumenism among Christians as a good witness to critical secularists and other types of religious believers. Although the meeting celebrated the work of Dr. King for a more inclusive society, with his daughter Denice King as guest, Bernard couldn’t help but notice that the event was a Christian affair in a city of booming religious options.
In contrast to the public nature of his visit, Benedict met privately with a group of leaders of other religions in Washington, DC, perhaps to focus on international religious and political tensions with non-Christian countries. To some it seemed like Pope Benedict was uncertain how to handle the emergence of New York City’s postsecular public square in which Christians, other religionists, and secularists each have a right and duty to work together for the democratic good.
Bernard points out that the shift towards an interreligious meeting will bring leaders of all faith communities in New York City for a common aim for “work to the good of mankind.”
At the event Cardinal Timothy Dolan will welcome the Pope, and then Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue and Imam Khalid Latif from the NYU Muslim Center will offer reflections. The Pope will then pray for the victims of the terrorist attacks.
Afterwards, Bernard and representatives from the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Muslim religions will read meditations on peace.
Bernard is known as a very practical Christian leader who focuses upon solving civic problems. To him there is a commonality between religions in “a belief in the value of human life and responsibility” to address issues like homelessness, sickness, housing inequality, and poverty. In addressing these problems, focusing on the differences between faiths is counterproductive.
He says that the social conflicts over the death of Eric Garner is an example a civic problem that cross-faith alliances were able to effectively provide a key ingredient to the restoration of civic peace. The communications between the police and civilians was breaking down rapidly. Leaders from different religions could actually get together more quickly and then effectively connect both sides with a promise of a safe, affirming place to meet. They helped Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton to reconnect with the disaffected public in practical ways to solve various complaints.
In a city like New York that is pluralistic in every direction, religious leaders who respect and trust each other can be key problem solvers and peacemakers across social divisions. Bernard believes that the current pope understands this dimension of New York City civic life better than most.
Bernard himself is the on the Board of Directors of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders (CoRL), an interfaith panel that addresses city concerns, and is also a member of Mayor de Blasio’s Clergy Advisory. At his church, the Christian Cultural Center, Bernard teaches practical Biblical principles for civic action to overcome social problems. His 30,000+ congregation is as comfortable with a blackboard as they are with the big sounds of the hymns.
Bernard says that the Commission of Religious Leaders foresee that this event will be a point of reference for future action, a proof that the very diverse faith communities in the city can “foster an atmosphere conducive to coming together to deal with issues using collective faiths.”
The Protestant pastor is preparing for the service at the 9/11 Memorial by reflecting on the Beatitudes, which he was assigned to read before the assembly. These are the eight wonderful poetic blessings that Jesus bestowed on peacemakers and others with good hearts. Two of them, as recorded in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, are particularly relevant for the 9/11 Memorial gathering:
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Bernard says that Jesus’s idea of a blessing is that it is his desire that the people blessed in this way will obtain “a state, a condition for those who commit their works to God.”
Pope Francis will respond at the end of the ceremony with his reflections followed by an affirmation sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Bernard observes that Pope Francis lives like he is in that blessed condition talked about in the Beatitudes because one can see that with each new act of his service and compassion, he seems to exude a greater and greater joy. The Protestant pastor hopes that in the presence of the pontiff’s example that the other leaders with also find a joyful blessedness in their linking up to face down evil deeds.
At the end of the Ground Zero ceremony the religious leaders will offer up symbols of peace.